Lupita Nyong’o captured our hearts when she portrayed the character Patsy in the Steve McQueen-directed film, 12 Years a Slave. The Mexico City-born Kenyan beauty admits her authentic self was almost swept away in the Hollywood madness until she committed to a passion project, Eclipsed, and the woman she loved returned. Here’s what she shared with ESSENCE in our January cover story.
She never fathomed the fame that would come with her success.
“When I dreamed of being an actor, I didn’t dream of the praise that would come with it. I didn’t dream of the awards. I dreamed of inhabiting different characters. That was the dream.”
She was afraid of falling up the stairs when accepting her Academy Award.
“I had 40 meters of fabric to navigate and I kept thinking, ‘I cannot fall. I cannot fall.’ I kept thinking, ‘it’s not cute to be second.’ It was cute when Jennifer Lawrence did it. It’s not cute when you’re the second one.”
She almost let the hectic nature of her Hollywood schedule get the best of her.
“After 12 Years a Slave and the quote-unquote meteoric rise, I felt like there was a moment where I was suffering from whiplash. I had talked so much about who I was that I’d forgotten who I was. The schedule I was keeping, the number of public engagements I was doing, those pressures were sneaking into me and lodging themselves in unidentifiable places. Rationally I know better than t have those things burden me, but subconsciously I was very burdened by what I was becoming to the world. I had to get back to who I am and for that’s theater. I had to retreat back into my craft to remind myself who I am.”
She is naturally reserved even in a setting where all eyes are on her.
“I’ve tried to be like an ostrich with my head in the sand. If I don’t see them, then they don’t see me. But that’s not the case. I will be seen, even if I’m not seeing.”
She commits to telling the story of a character, not the payday of a production.
“I don’t like to half commit, so if I’m going to commit to something it really has to feel like it’s worth my creative time, that it will engage me, feed me. Otherwise it’s too long a time to suffer emotionally. It’s like being in a bad relationship when you’re in the wrong project.”
She’s still worried about appearing on the red carpet.
“It’s not a natural environment for a human being to inhabit. You’re one person, and hundreds of flashes are going off in your face and people are yelling your name. Yes, and you’re standing there to be judged, so you’re kind of complicit in it. I don’t think anyone ever gets used to it. It becomes more familiar and you stop shaking as much and your body gets used to that level of shock. But it’s like being on stage: you never stop getting butterflies. It’s one of the things that reminds you that you care.”
She wasn’t prepared to be bestowed with her very own day in Harlem on October 20.
“I thought they were going to give me a certificate for attendance I had no clue it was coming. Zero clue.”
She keeps her squad small.
“I’ve become more precious about who I spend time with, I have such a busy schedule that I’ve just become a lot more delicate about my social life. It’s a challenge to trust new people.”